TalTech is by no means alone in its green transition and the dream of a sustainable university. In the spring, when the Balkan countries were drowning in beautiful cherry blossoms, experts from UNICA, or the Network of Universities from the Capitals of Europe, gathered in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to exchange ideas and experiences on how to build sustainable campuses and work with local communities and cities.
Article and photos: Mari Öö Sarv
Broadly speaking, universities are divided into city universities, where the academic buildings are scattered around the city, and campus universities, such as TalTech, where all or most of the buildings are in the same location. Given that transport is globally the largest source of CO2 in cities, it is clear that operating on campuses is more environmentally friendly. At the same time, the desire to serve the society and engage communities was evident in almost all presentations, and a university spread across the city can have advantages here.
However, what should we keep in mind in the development of a modern and sustainable university? The two-day conference offered great examples from many places, each with their own challenges, as well as exciting collaborative research projects.
Building a new campus
There was a clear reason for calling the meeting in Sarajevo – The University of Sarajevo is in the process of building a new campus on the site of an abandoned Yugoslavian military base. The conference was opened by Leijla Hajro, Head of Directorate for University Campus Development at the University of Sarajevo, an urban planner with a background in architecture, who said that this type of project is every architect’s dream – a big site, free rein, lots of possibilities, and a long-term plan. Today, a master plan has been completed, some of the ruins have been demolished and, at the time of writing this article, work has started on the first new building, the library. Work has also begun on establishing the park, preserving as many of the old trees and historical features as possible, including a statue of Yugoslavian dictator Tito.
Openness has been one of the core values of the design. A pedestrian corridor runs through the campus, connecting two major routes, one with a bus station and train station, the other a riverside residential area. This is why you can expect to see many residents of the city there. A park and cafés are planned along the corridor, alongside the library, and people are already thinking about what it would be like to spend time there: how to make the buildings exciting enough to entice anyone; how to create a nice space and share it with the university and the public; and how to make the campus and buildings a lively place for entire long days and weeks, not just during school hours. However, there is another debate on how buildings and learning will change over time: what the university will look like in 20 and 50 years’ time, finding a good balance between formal and new learning methods, and making new buildings as flexible and shareable as possible between different users and uses.
Naturally, greenery was one of the design principles – using roofs and linking the campus to the city and the surrounding landscape. Forestry engineer Mirzeta Dodžić pointed out that only two per cent of Sarajevo is covered with greenery, and planting and caring for plants is everyone’s responsibility, not just the city government. Over the last century, there has been an emphasis on expanding built-up land and roads at the expense of natural greenery, so this domain is poorly regulated. ‘Green spaces have a lot of bonuses – they absorb noise, provide shade from rain, wind, and the sun, clean the air, conserve soil and water, not to mention aesthetics and mental health – so we definitely need to develop them. Regardless, we have to do it wisely, starting with policies that require green spaces from real estate developers and adding green spaces to the budgets of ministries, for example, and ending with planting only non-invasive species suitable for the climate, giving preference to fruit trees, while taking allergies into consideration,’ said the expert, listing important principles.
Lejla Hajro acknowledged that some challenges remain in the new campus master plan that still need a good solution. How to take demographics into consideration when the number of students is falling across Europe? How to meet the expectations of the city and the public? For example, one of the neighbours of the new campus is the US Embassy imposing strict restrictions on buildings on the neighbouring plot, while on the other side is a residential development with 16–19-storey buildings that asks the university to provide land for parking.
What do students want?
A provocative question of whether the future lies in sustainable or digital campuses was raised. We saw during the pandemic that you can do a lot digitally, but screens are no substitute for human interaction. Moreover, it is clear that you cannot do experiments in a dormitory and there will always be a need for classrooms. The discussion was concluded by Lejla Hajro who spoke about a survey that asked schoolchildren how they choose their university. ‘The most important thing was a place in the rankings, and immediately after that, social life,’ Hajro summarised the need for campuses.
The presentation of Adnan Rahimic, Senior International Relations Officer at the University of Sarajevo, focused on the needs of students by discussing a satisfaction survey of foreign students who had come to study in Sarajevo. Leaving aside visa and bureaucratic issues (easier for us in the Schengen area and the e-state) and the car-centric urban space (which cannot be controlled by the university), the overarching theme was the spaces for learning – tables, benches, and lawns outdoors, and group work facilities indoors, with plenty of power sockets and decent Wifi. When these options are scarce, students rely on cafés, which are both expensive and not always available.
Another important thing is to be involved and aware of local student organisations and other ways to get involved. Katrīna Sproģe, Vice President of the European Students’ Union, said the same: ‘Often, international students are not in the same information space as their domestic counterparts; they are offered cultural programmes and bus tours, but not with local students, and they are unaware of many of the discounts, benefits, rights, and opportunities available.’
Sproģe, however, highlighted another problem for foreign students: homelessness. She recommended that universities should first actively help foreign students to find accommodation, and secondly, not separate them from domestic students in dormitories (for example on a separate floor or wing); she added that if there is already a shortage of accommodation in the city, foreign students should not be admitted in excess of the capacity of a university to provide them with accommodation.
So what makes a good campus? Dr. Katarzyna Wojnar from the University of Warsaw and EUROREG, the Centre for European Regional and Local Studies, gave a number of good examples from universities around the world. She noted that, in the aftermath of the pandemic, we are more appreciative than before of work-life balance, flexibility, accessibility and e-services, more aware of the value of face-to-face communication, and also simply miss our campus community. She specifically highlighted the importance of ‘third spaces’ on campuses – leisure areas that are not linked to work, studies or home. However, modern campuses now face entirely new challenges, starting with size, environmental footprint, and high-tech, with a strong emphasis on poly-functionality of spaces and increasing the economic value of underused premises and equipment.
According to Dr. Wojnar, a good campus is designed to be inclusive and the needs of all user groups have been taken into consideration; it is designed to be collaborative and inspiring; it provides high-quality air, water, food, light, and sound and supports healthy lifestyles for both body and mind; it is resource-efficient, has a minimal environmental impact and is a place to experiment with green innovation; it has multifunctional and adaptable spaces and infrastructure; and finally, it is well integrated with the surrounding environment – the city, nature, culture, residential spaces, and transport network. ‘All in all, it is a smooth experience where the ‘seams’ of the services are unnoticeable,’ said Wojnar.
Universities as agents of changing the world and superstars in the service of society
Social scientist Dr. Wendy Bos presented a collaboration platform of researchers in Amsterdam, a region with two research and five applied sciences universities, 200,000 students, and 2.5 million inhabitants. This community is served by openresearch.amsterdam, a platform for publishing scientific articles, which has published 10,000 articles in three years. A diverse range of experts and expertise is involved, such as researchers and academicians not only from universities but also from museums. ‘Cities are chaotic,’ said Bos, explaining that cities are at the centre of social, technological, economic, and natural changes, all of which interact with each other. The aim is not to fight the chaos and ‘tidy up’ cities, but to help them cope with it. ‘Urban challenges need synergies between researchers and decision-makers. Policies need to be transparent and evidence-based,’ she stated a clear direction. That is where openresearch.amsterdam comes in, offering knowledge, collaboration, and contacts. The number of partners in the evidence-based knowledge network is steadily growing.
Bos concluded her presentation with the message that universities are a catalyst for change and the campus of the future is outside the university walls. ‘The function of cities is to keep things running, not to manage change, whereas scientists deal with change every day,’ she said. Among the most valuable assets of a university is its large student population – a young, curious, enterprising, and energetic resource. However, Bos immediately added the other parts of the messy equation – universities themselves are gigantic organisations that are difficult to change and researchers are constantly trying to find funding for their research in addition to scientific work, so time is short. ‘Therefore, nobody has any idea how to find ways to accelerate, but acceleration is needed,’ Bos said. Experiences and practices that are currently being collected from cities for the ‘Universities as catalysts for change’ report to understand the possibilities.
The University of Edinburgh, on the other hand, is serving local communities with a programme where 600 students – change agents – are seeking solutions to 21 challenges. Programme that started in 2019 has students put their heads together in small groups and each project gets around 900 student hours over 8–12 weeks, while the students get a powerful experience of real-life problem solving, a good stepping stone to a high-impact job and, of course, credits. All of the tasks are also linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
A third example of cooperation between communities and universities was presented by Gabi Göbl from the Central European University and the Open Society University Network. The network is made up of universities from all over the world, and local organisations and partners come to the OSUN Science Shop with concerns and challenges which become course projects, internships, and research at universities – in other words, the owners of the problems receive scientific support and solutions. Göbl gave examples of philosophical questions, qualitative analysis, fieldwork, and documentary films from the OSUN Science Shop.
Solving real problems bridges the gap between academic disciplines and real life, while the benefits are also greater. Through the Science Shop, teaching and research is more meaningful for the practitioners, and in many ways, more tangible for the communities; students find internships and future jobs; faculties gain exciting content and research topics for curricula, external partners, micro-funding for projects, and enthusiastic and satisfied students; problem owners get not only solutions but, through networking, access to relevant knowledge and experience from around the world, as well as to recruit future professionals. The participating universities, on the other hand, keep themselves up-to-date and competitive in both teaching and research by offering students exciting programmes and skills that the labour market really needs and, of course, forming a connection with the society around them.
According to Vebjørn Bakken, Head of Energy and Environment of the University of Oslo, his university is also developing a master plan. A few years ago, a local philanthropist donated a ‘climate building’ to the university – a fossil fuel free, zero-energy building located in the botanical gardens of the university, open to the public, with exciting climate-related exhibitions and programmes for children. The downside is that the building is remote from other university buildings and has no connection with the university in the eyes of the public. Now, a research campus is planned on the outskirts of the Oslo city centre, housing the entire research ecosystem. In addition to the university and its hospital, the plan is to bring research institutes and research-intensive companies and incubators along with investors and institutions together to a sustainable campus to support innovation, creativity and commercialisation of ideas, knowledge and science.
Jana Dlouhá from the Environment Centre at Charles University in Prague spoke about the green transition of universities, which needs to cover all processes in the organisation. Twenty-five Czech universities have joined forces in the UNILEAD project to transform higher education into a sustainable one. The focus is on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN and the aim is to strengthen the role of universities as effective, accountable, and inclusive organisations through collaboration and sharing of best practices. In 2022, work focused on strategy and strategic partners, waste, energy management, responsible procurement, water management, biodiversity, mobility, sustainable food, eco-friendly construction, and sustainable IT infrastructure. Dlouhá stressed that it is essential for good cooperation that an initiative comes from the grassroots and the framework for action from the top when redesigning an organisation. In 2023, the Charles University is in the process of finalising a sustainable development strategy and discussing an action plan and indicators.
Organisations and cooperation platforms mentioned:
TalTech and networks of universities
CESAER is a non-profit association of universities of science and technology in Europe, founded on 10 May 1990 in Leuven, Belgium, in the Castle of Arenberg. It has 58 research and technological universities in 28 countries.
European University Association (EUA) represents more than 800 higher education establishments in 48 countries, providing them with a forum for cooperation and exchange of information on higher education and research policies. The members of the association are European universities engaged in teaching and research, national rectors’ conferences, and other organisations active in higher education and research.
Network of Universities from the Capitals of Europe (UNICA) is a network of 56 universities, bringing together major higher education institutions from 41 European capitals, with a total of more than 150,000 university staff and 1,500,000 students. It was founded in 1990 on the initiative of the Université libre de Bruxelles. The mission of the network is to promote academic excellence as well as integration and cooperation between its member universities across Europe.
BALTECH (short for Baltic Sea Region University Consortium for Science and Technology) is a consortium of universities from the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea that enables, for example, student mobility and remote teaching between universities, as well as acts as an industrial liaison between universities and industry.
NORDTEK is a network of rectors and deans of technology universities in the Nordic and Baltic countries. Members represent 27 universities, more than 120,000 students, lecturers, and researchers.
Science Business Network is a forum that brings together leading organisations from the worlds of industry, research, innovation, and policy-making at both EU and national level. Members meet regularly, both publicly and privately, to discuss the latest developments in research and innovation policy and practice, including current and future programmes.
EuroTeQ Engineering University is a project that creates joint engineering study programmes across disciplines and national and institutional borders. EuroTeQ aims to take a holistic view of technological developments and involve a wide range of relevant actors in order to strengthen social cohesion in Europe. Along with TalTech, EuroTeQ includes the Technical University of Munich, the Technical University of Denmark, the Eindhoven University of Technology, Ecole Polytechnique, and the Czech Technical University in Prague.